Behavior to Genes and Back Again

I have heard it cynically said that “the best thing for a writer is a bad childhood.” But what accounts for the effects of early experience on later behavior? In an essay this month for Science, Greg Miller reviews the exciting and controversial field of behavioral epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of molecular mechanisms that alter the activity of genes without changing their DNA sequence.

The way DNA is folded within our cells determines how it is unpacked to give the code for building basic molecules in our body. Epigenetic factors can change the way DNA is folded, thus altering the way it is decoded.

One of the central claims of the field is that environmental experience can shape genetic activity in the brain, with potentially lifelong effects. The work of pioneering researchers Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf suggests that epigenetics could be responsible for something like a relationship between bad childhood and artistic expression, if one exists.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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